Friendships change over time. As people and their circumstances change, small disagreements and misunderstandings arise. In the end, friends who considered themselves close realize that their paths have diverged. And friendship could to finish beautifully or a moan.
Conflicts and disagreements are inevitable in relationships. The ubiquitous advice from experts and laypersons alike when it comes to resolving conflict is to “talk it over” – or, as academics put it, “engage in constructive discussion.”
This advice is usually directed at couples, however, in a recent book titled How to break up with your friendslife coach Erin Falconer encourages her readers to have frank and open conversations when things go off the rails with their friends.
But what does the research show? Friendship research shows that when conflicts and disagreements arise, the most common response is “do not do anything.”
Psychologist Cheryl Harasymchuk and I have conducted research where we presented participants with a scenario in which they were asked to imagine being dissatisfied in a romantic relationship and then respond in four different ways. These were: a positive and active response, where they engaged in a discussion of the issue; a positive and passive response, where they didn’t bring up the issue but just sat back and hoped things would get better; a negative and passive response, which involved withdrawing and ignoring or neglecting the person; or, an active, negative response that saw them end or threaten to end the relationship. Then they were asked to predict how the other person would react.
We found that people expected their friend to return a passive response, but not an active response. However, in a romantic relationship, people expected that if they actively responded, their partner would do the same.
Why do friends avoid open and active discussion of conflict issues? In another phase of this research, we asked participants what outcome they expected, based on their response to dissatisfaction. It turned out that people expected that if they engaged in an active and constructive discussion with their love partner, the problem would be solved.
On the other hand, they thought that if they spoke in a friendship, the problem would not be solved. In fact, participants believed that problems in friendships are more likely to be resolved by not actively discussing problematic issues – in other words, by using passive responses.
This culture of passivity also means that unless there is a major turbulent event in a relationship, such as a betrayal of trust, friendships tend not to formally “break” as romantic relationships do. . On the contrary, friends tend to drift apart when there is a disagreement over matters.
Friends also break up even when there is no malevolence. Sometimes circumstances, such as a move, make it more difficult to maintain the relationship.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has highlighted the differences that friends can encounter, especially in terms of fundamental values such as the priority of individual rights over the “common good”. Friends can find themselves on opposite sides on issues such as vaccine mandates and compliance, wearing masks, supporting protests that oppose COVID restrictions, and more.
The discovery of dissimilarities can hasten the death of a friendship, especially if these dissimilarities revolve around fundamental values.
Talk things through?
It’s easy to suggest friends just talk about it. What this well-meaning advice ignores is that friends aren’t used to talking to each other. That’s not to say that friends can’t benefit from discussing issues, just to point out that people expect that even if they raise an issue, their friend won’t engage and, in Besides, that the problem will remain unresolved.
So where does that leave friends who find themselves on opposite sides of pandemic-related issues? The dissolution of the friendship seems almost inevitable. It can be difficult, at the best of times, to find the time and energy to nurture friendships. Commitments to work and family are usually given higher priority than commitment to friends.
So any problem that rocks the boat can be enough to sink a friendship. For those who are motivated to hold on to a friendship, despite the divide the pandemic has created or highlighted, it can be helpful to focus on the similarities you still share. You may want to remember what you and your friend still have in common, take time to reflect on your shared experiences and history, and reflect on how much you’ve invested in this relationship.
Even if the chasm is still too wide, letting the friendship wither, rather than actively dissolving it, leaves the door open for future reconciliation. A withered friendship is more easily resuscitated than an officially broken friendship.